You all know (or should know) my love for history goes hand-in-hand with my love of food. The scene in the fish-sauce factory in Murder In Absentia, a mere sideline, turned out one of the more memorable parts of the book (to say nothing about cooking the gryphon…). To me, knowing the history of a dish makes it more special and memorable, and using historically-accurate foods in writing is an excellent way to bring in more senses and give a sense of place to a scene, a world.
These days I don’t get enough (read: any) writing time, so as a let-out for my creativity I’ve been on a cooking bender. I’m exploring different cuisines (mostly playing to my strengths of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European), and have also got myself a few new cookbooks (and left reviews for the better ones on Goodreads as I work out recipes from them).
Some dishes are just creative modern solutions for weekday dinners, but some have a history behind them. And naturally I am drawn to that history, of the dish and the cuisine and the culture behind them that shaped it. Which leads to more reading, and dabbling, and experimenting.
I am not going to turn this into a cooking/food blog, but considering the amount of comments the Instagram & Facebook posts got, I thought I’d occasionally drop some notes and references about particularly interesting dishes and discoveries when history is involved. All to satisfy and tantalise your culinary history curiosity.
From here on, I talk about culinary history in general, the particular dish of the Tsas in the above post, and throw in a YouTube recommendation that should lead you down a rabbit hole of yumminess (where certain episodes would look very familiar to those who read the books).
Chasing tails in history
First, a note about the futility of chasing the “true original” recipe. In most cases, there ain’t no such thing. Unless a dish was invented and documented for a specific event (eg Caesar’s Salad or Tarte Tatin), when we look at a dish that is “typical” to a cuisine there are probably as many variations as there are cooks. And besides, who says that a century old recipe is better, given that you have access to different ingredients and equipment, and are cooking for a different audience?
I often come across similar discussion around martial arts, when there’s a certain obsession with finding the “true” style of the original masters. Which, of course, is nonsense. Martial arts exist in a context, and their practice is very much a function of the practitioner. I guess this applies to all art, and cooking is no different — it’s up to you and the context in which you operate.
So I hereby free you from ever having to participate in another “my nana knows better” online discussion. What I do instead, is look up variations of recipe from several sources. There is usually a core flavour profile for a dish, which I tweak to my and my family’s preferences. When investigating a dish, recipes are not so much rigid instructions as a general road-map. You may get purists yelling that “this is not how you do it!” and “I’ve never heard of this dish including that ingredient!“, but let me assure you that if you’ve done your research about the variations, one, it’s probably like someone’s nana made it, and, two, if you like it, who cares what others say?
Lastly as an example, and because there’s no way I would have a food-related blog without mentioning some kind of fish sauce, I can tell you from personal experience that if you run out of anchovies (the “secret weapon” of Mediterranean cuisine and something you should throw in many sauces), a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce in your pizza sauce goes a long way. It’s a surprisingly a good alternative to garum: it’s more sour than pungent due to the tamarind, but it’ll give you the right umami flavour. You can balance it with sweet flavours, or use the asian fish sauces instead (the main difference between Asian fish sauce and Garum are the herbs and spices — the basics are the same: fish and salt). Will adding a few dashes of Worcestershire, Sriracha, and Smoky BBQ sauces to a pizza base make someone cry in horror? Undoubtedly. Is it the yummiest way to handle tomato sauces? My family certainly thinks so.
The decadence of the Tsars
Encasing your proteins in pastry predates recorded history and probably goes back to the neolithic agricultural revolution. There is an infinite number of variations on the subject of savoury baked goods from all over the globe, but give it a few millennia of refinement and the Kulebyaka is the epitome of the medium.
Since this is how we started this discussion, let’s review the history and evolution of the dish. It is attested in 19th century Russian literature, eg by Chekhov (who described it as “The kulebyaka should be appetizing, shameless in its nakedness, a temptation to sin” in his short story The Siren, which is basically literary food-porn), and by Gogol (who said it “…would have excited the appetite of a corpse” in Dead Souls). It was considered so complicated and expensive that only the very rich could ever afford it. Generally, it is a closed “pie”, actually a type of pirog pastry, a relative of the better known, smaller, pirushki. Inside are multiple layers, usually starting with rice, eggs, fish flakes, mushrooms, greens, etc., with the more moist layers on the top. Layers were separated by blini, the Russian crepes.
As if that’s not enough, one of the classic ingredients was vesiga (or vyziga), the dried spinal marrow of sturgeon. (Side note: vesiga, though not coulibiac, was served to first-class passengers of the Titanic on April 14th as Consommé Olga, the soup course of their 13-course last dinner. Between that, WWI, and the Russian revolution, this ingredient fell out of favour together with the upper crust who consumed it).
It was introduced to the West by Escoffier, the father of modern French cuisine, when, according to legends, he had to cook for some Russian officers stationed in France in the late 19th century and wanted to help them with their homesickness. Thereafter he included it as Coulibiac in his seminal book The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery, which influenced so much of the 20th century top-end cuisines.
Being such a cultural icon, recipes were adapted and simplified over the years. The essence of the dish is a layered dish, with rice (or sometime buckwheat, the quintessential grain of Russian home life) at the bottom, flavoured with herbs, boiled eggs, and sour cream, followed by layers of fish (rarely, meat), mushrooms, onion, occasionally cabbage, and similar. The blini, which I can attest do influence the flavour subtly, are often simply used as a barrier between the filling and the pasty, rather than between layers. The pasty too is variable: from yeast brioche-like dough, to soft short-crust dough, to French puff-pastry.
So with everything that we discussed, you can see how chasing the “true” original recipe is a pointless exercise. even if you were trying to recreate the Tsarist dish, you’re unlikely to get sturgeon, let alone vesiga. Even if you did, finding the actual Russian historical recipe would be hard (and, cooks and kitchens supplies being what they are, you’re guaranteed that there were variations), so you’ll likely encounter Escoffier’s Frenchified recipe. Then you’ll face obstacles like western sour cream isn’t quite Russian smetana, kitchen utilities and techniques have changed, and — of course — you have a life and ain’t nobody got time for that. This is why I say cooking is an art, and exploring dishes and cuisines is more about a sketchy road-map than definite instructions.
For the interested, I did a layer of rice mixed with dill, shallots, diced boiled eggs, and sour cream, followed by a single layer of mixed salmon, mushrooms, and silverbeet (chard). It took a long while (three hours), because many components need to be done separately: cook the rice, boil the eggs, then mix together with the herbs and cream. Sear the salmon, then (in same pan) saute the mushrooms, and (again in the same pan) cook the chard leaves. During this I made the dough and let it rest (short-crust with egg and milk), and cooked the blini (which means every two minutes I had something to flip). Maximum efficiency with a minimum of time and pots, but it was still very much not a weekday dinner.
As for construction, I divided the dough into 3 unequal parts. Medium rolled out to become the base, topped with 4 blini (don’t worry, the other 20 were gone by the same night). Layered the rice, then the fish mix. Folded up the blini, rolled the largest piece of dough to cover it, and crimped the edges for effect. The smallest bit of dough I rolled out and used a cookie-cutter to make the flowers, cut the ‘stems’ with a knife to allow steam to escape, gave it an egg wash, and baked for 40 mins in 180c/360F. Result was so yummy, that everyone, even my very fussy son, had seconds and was looking forward to having it the next day. (My wife, the true Russian amongst us, who cooked an even more simplified version on a few occasions, said she never had salmon and mushrooms together, but that it works surprisingly well together).
If you’re looking for more historical Russian food-porn, try this excellent article. Cyrniki, #9 on the list, are what I usually do for pancakes on weekend mornings. I have plans to cook more samples from this list… right after I recover from this week’s Russian cookery.
(Side note about chard: this was mentioned in one version of the Kulebyaka recipes I surveyed, while others had the mushrooms often sauteed with onions. It’s of the same family as beets, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s common in Russia. Also, I love chard — basically, every time I see “kale” in a recipe, I read it as “pig slop for the terminally masochistic; replace with chard for discerning humans.” Try it, especially if you’ve been forcing yourself to eat kale — you’ll thank me later.)
Now, as a parting (Parthian) shot to blow your mind, consider this. There’s a Scottish dish called kedgeree, which is based on the Indian khichri. It first appears in a late 18th century Scottish cookbook, but was likely common to many British soldiers returning from India even before. While the Indian dish is based on rice and lentils, the British dish is basically rice, boiled eggs, flaked fish, and herbs, often finished with cream. Sounds familiar? Remove the curry spices, add to that what I noted above about encasing your dish in pastry, how ‘Beef Wellington’ predates Duke Wellington by a couple of centuries (and some versions include crepes as a moisture barrier), and the general cross-fascination of 19th century Brits, French, Prussian, and Russian upper crusts — and you have to wonder how that first cook for the Tsars came up with the idea Kulebyaka.
Food, like people, travelled long distances across the world even in very ancient times. Even before the Han dynasty’s export of silk, people were trading from eastern and central asia with mesopotamia and the balkans along the “silk road”. You can also see the similarities between South Indian and Northern India cuisines, and then similarities to Persian, to Afghani and Iraqi, from there to Syriac and Armenian, which have distinct similarities with Anatolian cuisines, which have a lot in common with Balkan.
Remember the kedgeree above? It wasn’t the only way it travelled: there’s an Iraqi dish called kichri, which is similar to the Indian khichri (but with different spices), which is in turn very similar to the Syrian mudjadara, a rice-lentils-onion dish (with, again, different spices) which I love dearly even if my family complains bitterly when I cook it. And that doesn’t count all the other variations of rice-and-local-produce (herbs and meats: pilaf, pilau, plov, etc), which have travelled all around the place. The etymology of names of dishes is sometimes just as interesting, but one cannot deny that “cuisine” is an ever-evolving product of external and local influences.
Anyway. If you mention Indian vs Balkan cuisines, most people would think “curry” and “feta” and not — when you look at overall influences — about how those influences travelled and were adapted through each region. There’s a lot more to history than wars and conquest.
The promised cringe-worthy rabbit-hole
Imagine a whole channel done by a chef with a love of history, who researches original sources and tries to recreate them, providing entertainment and education at the same time. This is almost what the Tasting History YouTube Channel is all about. While Miller is not a chef or an historian, he does a very credible job of researching original sources to find ancient recipes and then cook them at home. The videos are highly entertaining and informative, and I’ve already recreated his Parthian Chicken from Apicius.
I’ll leave you with this video about kykeon, the mythological drink of Greek heroes (which, incidentally, appears in In Victrix):
I am certainly going to try his version of Parthian Chicken from Apicius. I wasn’t aware that you can still get asafoetida powder (as a replacement to the now-extinct silphium), so as soon as I can track it down here in Oz, I’ll give it a try. Apparently, it’s common in Indian cooking under various names, and there are certainly enough Indian grocers around here. (And if I can’t, I’ll just wing it — perhaps mixing both Asian fish sauce and Worcestershire, with a few spices).
That’s eat for now (ha! I made a pun!). It turned out a very lengthy post, but I hope you enjoyed what you found, learned something new about history (even if it’s outside the usual Roman focus of this blog), and found something to tantalise your senses. I’d love to know what you think, and if you’d like more cooking-with-a-history-slant-but-keeping-sane posts. Perhaps you’d like to hear of version of a paella (a Spanish rice and-and-stuff dish, whose etymology, interestingly, is unrelated to pilaf), which I do regularly to everyone’s delight?
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Enjoying the posts, but wondering who the heck is that Felix fellow and where exactly is Egretia? Glad you asked! He’s the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on a background inspired by ancient Rome.